The NICU can be a confusing and disorienting experience for new parents who were expecting to take their baby home from the hospital, but there are still lots of opportunities to connect with your newborn.
One of the easiest ways is to simply be present in the NICU. Depending on the type of care your baby requires, you may or may not be able to touch or hold him immediately. But the sound of your voice and your physical presence will still be a great comfort to your little one, who will remember your voice from his time in the womb.
Nurturing touch has a powerful effect on preterm infants. Research shows premature infants who received massage therapy had significantly enhanced weight gain compared to preterm babies who received standard medical care. However, because tiny babies have immature nervous systems, touch can sometimes be overly stimulating or even painful for them so it is important to be sensitive to how they respond. Still touch (gently resting your hand on your baby's body) is often the most comforting for preemies. Nurses in the NICU will help you learn to touch your baby in ways that will be comfortable for him and to read your baby's cues so you can know when to slow down or stop contact.
When your baby is in stable condition, ask to cuddle him kangaroo style. This involves holding your baby with skin-to-skin contact under your clothing so he stays snuggly and warm. The benefits of kangaroo care are impressive. Kangaroo care has been shown to improve the mortality rates of preterm babies, stabilize heart rates, improve breathing and oxygen levels, promote longer periods of sleep, enhance weight gain, improve brain development, decrease crying, increase alertness and promote more successful breastfeeding. Kangaroo care expert Dr. Susan Ludington says kangaroo care works because mothers and babies are biologically hardwired to need each other: "Separation is not biologically normal."
When you are able to hold your baby, you can begin to try breastfeeding. Did you know moms who breastfeed preemies produce milk specially designed for the premature age of her infant? This milk will contain more protein, fat calories and specific vitamins and minerals needed for preterm infant development. When you breastfeed, place your baby against your body for skin-to-skin contact. This helps to regulate the baby's body temperature while feeding along with all the other wonderful benefits of kangaroo care. Even if you are not able to hold your baby, you can still pump your breasts and deliver your milk to your baby with a bottle or through tube-feeding.
As your baby gets stronger, ask the nurse if you can help to care for him when he needs a diaper change, gets his temperature taken, needs a bath or a change of clothes. These simple moments will help you feel closer to your baby and more confident when the time comes to take him home.
Melanie Howe, mother of two, offers advice from her experience in the special care nursery, "The most important thing I learned was to advocate for yourself and your baby. While the medicine is important, the relationship between mother (and father) and baby is equally so. So often, hospital staff is so busy trying to fix the medical problem they lose sight of how important and powerful bonding is for parents and their baby. Insist on holding, feeding, bathing and changing your baby. Be there as much as you can."
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